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The search for a godless vision of morality in Australian politics

By Mitchell Landrigan - posted Monday, 4 February 2013


Julia Gillard took office as Prime Minister as an atheist. This statement might be unremarkable except that her appointment as Prime Minister heralded an end to a sustained period of Christian leadership by her predecessors, Kevin Rudd and before him, John Howard. On two political issues – gay marriage and asylum seekers – the Prime Minister's stance has perhaps led to confusion in the electorate about the ethical framework that guides the Prime Minister's decision-making. More specifically, the Prime Minister's unwillingness or inability to articulate an alternative moral model to Christianity – one based on secular humanism – has arguably resulted in cynicism about what guides the Prime Minister's values and has perhaps led to a perception amongst voters that these are purely pragmatic political choices by the Prime Minister and are largely devoid of moral content.

This perception is thrown into sharper relief by the fact that the two Prime Ministers before Julia Gillard were men of known Christian conviction (as is the Opposition Leader). The Prime Minister has not, as yet, articulated a substitute humanitarian framework to replace Christian belief. Nor, despite the Opposition Leader's reputation for gaffes and occasional untruths, have the Prime Minister's secular values morally trumped Mr Abbott's conservative god-based ethical foundation as a basis for political decision-making.

John Howard and Kevin Rudd as the Prime Ministers who preceded Julia Gillard in office, each brought contrasting styles of Christian leadership to the role. Kevin Rudd brought – albeit relatively briefly – an energetic style of Christianity to Australian political leadership. Rudd appeared to not be strongly opposed to gay marriage. He compared the government's responsibility towards asylum seekers to that of the Good Samaritan and he claimed that his government would not lurch to the right in relation to these vulnerable people.

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By contrast, John Howard led Australia with a stoic brand of Christian values. Tied to tradition and implicitly supporting married women staying at home, Howard's religion may well have acted as a kind of comfort fugue for many Australians. His style of belief – safe and assured - was one from which Australians could draw comfort and strength. It was tied to the past – and the past had served Australians well as a Christian nation. God was with Howard; and god was with his Ministers.

On contentious topics such as gay marriage and asylum seekers, Howard's conservative views, while undoubtedly offensive to many progressives, at least mostly seemed consistent with his personal beliefs. He had a well understood ethical framework by which the electorate could measure the internal consistency of his decisions. For example, homosexual marriage was at odds with the traditional Christian model of marriage whereby a male breadwinner worked outside the home to support a stay at home child-bearing and child-rearing mother. It was, in a sense, unsurprising and logical – albeit no doubt irritating to many - for Howard to not support gay marriage. Similarly, his implicit or explicit opposition towards asylum seekers – boat people - was unsurprising given the potential for some arrivals, perhaps even many, to be from Muslim backgrounds.

With Julia Gillard's ascension, there was an opportunity for a new Prime Minister to provide a new vision of leadership which was not founded on Christian belief. Prime Minister Gillard, however, has been a failure in articulating to Australians the moral basis for her stance on gay marriage and asylum seekers. Beyond speaking nebulously of tradition – a term necessarily conjuring the political ghost of (the extant) John Howard – the current Prime Minister has at no time explained in detail her opposition towards gay marriage. This is not to say that the Prime Minister must inform the electorate about how her atheistic world view shapes all her political decisions. Nor is it to say that all atheists must support homosexual marriage (any more than it is to say that all Christians must oppose it). Even with a godless world view, a political leader could oppose gay marriage on the basis, say, that the model does not promote efficient childbearing, or that, for whatever reason, it is preferable for a heterosexual couple to raise children than for gay couple to do so. Or the leader might simply not think the issue to be of any importance.

Yet, Prime Minister Gillard has been content to rely on an explanation of her opposition to gay marriage that is barely distinguishable from the soporific rationale offered by John Howard.

Similarly, in relation to asylum seekers, there is the opportunity for a humanist Prime Minister to declare her government's compassionate support for the vulnerable, weak, marginalised and poor. The Prime Minister could specifically distinguish her secular view from that of the Catholic Opposition Leader whose Christian views seem embarrassingly devoid of compassion. There is instead no overt sense of sympathy and concern coming from Prime Minister; there is no reaching out of a safe, warm, comforting hand. There has instead been, amongst other hardline policies, talk of excision – the legal cutting off of Australia from the rest of the world so that the land is beyond asylum seekers' reach.

For some non-believers (or non-Christians), the Prime Minister's leadership perhaps represents a fading or even already lost opportunity to provide a vision of secular moral values to the electorate. The irreversible decline in Australians' commitment to Christian belief – as measured by a number of consecutive Censuses - could potentially allow an atheistic Prime Minister to supply to the Australian citizenry a compelling set of values founded not on god, but on goodwill, kindness and compassion for humanity. Even more importantly, it could present a chance for a leader who does not believe in god to provide to the Australian people – including young voters - a model of robust ethical values based on godless morality. The Prime Minister has thus far failed to provide such a vision.

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About the Author

Mitchell Landrigan is a Visiting Fellow, Faculty of Law, University of Technology Sydney and part-time PhD Candidate, Law School, University of NSW. These are the personal views of the author. You can find Mitchell on Twitter as @Diabologue.

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